Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

“Death is going to find us all, no matter what, we still have to take active responsibility for what remains of our lives.”

This quote found early on in Death by Water is what I’m taking away from a novel with many themes. Kenzaburo Oe has written about parenting, aging, writing, and the future event we all will face, weaving them together in a novel which centers on a 74 year old author’s point of view.

Why the red leather suitcase in the photo above? Because it emerges again and again throughout the novel, though more acurately as a red leather trunk which Kogito’s mother bought at an antique store. It housed important papers and books and correspondence which Kogito’s father had taken with him the night he took a boat into the raging river and drowned.

But once Kogito is finally able to open it, he finds nothing of value to help him write “the drowning-novel”, the book he supposes will be his last. The book that he hopes will help answer the many questions he has about his father’s death. Why did he set out in his boat on such a perilous night? Was Kogito really with him, or did he dream the sequence of events while watching on the riverbank?

“I was looking for a way to express what a momentous occurrence my father’s drowning was for our family, but in a fit of cowardice I wrote the whole scene as if it were the recollection of a dream.”

The title of the novel, indeed its overarching theme, comes from these lines of poetry written by T. S. Eliot:


A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.”

~T. S. Eliot

But the lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem is echoed in the first two lines of a poem that Kogito’s mother wrote, and the last three written by Kogito in response:

“You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest
And like the river current, you won’t return home
In Tokyo during the dry season
I’m remembering everything backward
From old age to earliest childhood.”

The name Kogii has many meanings. It refers to Kogito’s nickname, but also to an imaginary friend, a supernatural alter-ego if you will. Kogito has come to figure out that his mother used the name to reference his mentally disabled son, Akari, as well.

The phrase “to go up into the forest” is a Japanese euphemism for death, and it seems that she is chiding her son, Kogito, for not taking care of his son, Akari. For indeed, their relationship is a troubled one.

Akari has a mental disability, but a great passion for music. He listens to classical CDs which make up the environment of their home, and is able to read the scores of music to compare sonatas between Beethoven and Hayden. But when he uses a pen to mark up a particularly special sheet of music, instead of the soft lead pencil his father has given him, his father says, “You’re an idiot!” It causes what seems to be irreparable damage between them.

When I wondered why his father did not apologize, it occurred to me that perhaps he couldn’t. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about accusing his son of what he saw as truth, no matter how hurtful it might have been. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about expressing his frustration at living with a son who in many ways is still a child.

I have read of Oe describing a father’s frustration over having a handicapped child before, in his novel A Personal Matter. It seems that the themes he uses are from his own experience, that his novels resonate with truths which he has experienced.

Near the end of the novel, a theater critic interviews Kogito in his study, and makes these observations while discussing his previously published books:

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but the author’s alter ego is nearly always the main character in his books. At some point doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered general novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over people who want to read a novel that’s actually novelistic: that is, an imaginative work of fiction. So at the risk of seeming rude, I really have to ask: Why do you choose to write about such a solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world?

and the answer:

“I’ve often asked myself how I ended up following such a constricted path in my fiction, but I always seem to come back to the sobering realization that if I hadn’t used the quasi-autobiographical approach I wouldn’t have been able to write anything at all. In other words, I’ve had to maintain this narrow focus out of sheer necessity.”

We close with another line from T. S. Eliot’s poetry, a favorite of Kogito’s and therefore perhaps Oe’s as well:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

These words, uttered by Kogito, have made his friend Unaiko cry. Why? “She said it made her realize that even for an older author who has had a great deal of success, the struggle never ends; on the contrary, it goes on forever, until you die.”

As it does for all of us.

Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
424 pages

A Personal Matter by Oe

Nevermind about the selfishness of Bird’s character, the way he abandons his unloved wife after she’s given birth to a baby with a brain hernia. Nevermind about his four month drinking spree, which he spent completely inebriated after their wedding. Nevermind about him clinging to his girlfriend, Himiko, instead of waiting by his wife’s bedside, or baby’s incubator, in either hospital.

What jumped out at me was the focus Bird had, and the attention Oe gave, on his obsession with Africa. By examining this thread, we can see the changes that Bird undergoes throughout the novel:

Uneasily he wondered if the day would ever come when he actually set foot on African soil and gazed through dark sunglasses at the African sky. Or was he losing, this very minute, once and for all, any chance he might have had of setting out for Africa? Was he being forced to say good-by, in spite of himself, to the single and final occasion of dazzling tension in his youth? And what if I am? There’s not a thing in hell I can do about it! (p. 3)


We’ll manage to restore our family life to normal. And then, all over again, the same dissatisfactions, the same desires unrealized, Africa the same vast distance away… (p. 68)


Somehow I must get away from the monster baby. If I don’t, ah, what will become of my trip to Africa? (p. 75)


He had just slightly more than thirty thousand yen in the bank, but it was money he had deposited as the beginning of a reserve fund for his trip to Africa. For the present, that thirty thousand odd yen was hardly more than a marker indicating a frame of mind. But even the marker was now about to be removed. Now, except for two road maps, Bird was left with nothing that related directly to a trip to Africa. (p. 78)


“You know, you often dream about leaving for Africa and shout things in Swahili! I’ve kept quiet about it all this time, but I’ve known you have no real desire to lead a quiet, respectable life with your wife and child. Bird?” (p. 97)


“That’s not such a bad idea—” Himiko glanced at Bird as if to test him. “You could forget our unhahppiness about the baby, Bird. And I could forget my husband’s suicide.”

“Exactly, and that’s so important!” Himiko’s father-in-law declared. “Why don’t the two of you just pack up and leave for Africa?”

“…I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t,” he said with a feckless sigh…”It’s too slick, that’s why, just happening to forget in the course of traveling around Africa that your baby’s life has ebbed away. I…I just couldn’t do it!” (p. 131-132)

This story, more about the father than his baby, is ultimately about growing up. Accepting responsibilities, disappointments, and the knowledge that there is very little in life we can control. No wonder it won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

I will never forget it.

I read this novel with the Nonstructured Reading Group, including Claire, Emily, Frances, Sarah, Iris and Richard.